Friday, August 16, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass 2, as many of you know, is the sequel to 2010's Kick-Ass, a film adapted from the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic of the same name.  Both Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Chloe Moretz (Hit Girl) reprise their good-guy/gal lead roles, along with alum Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Red Mist/The Motherfucker) returning as this film's nemesis.

I'm going to keep this one short:  Kick-Ass 2 tries really, really hard to be as subversive and entertaining as the original, but frankly, it's a concept that's played out.  It's a shame, because screenwriter/Director Jeff Wadlow is under the scrutiny of comics fans everywhere for this effort, as well as for being on tap to produce a screenplay for, and possibly direct, a feature X-force film with a tentative 2016 release. Although the shtick of it (a "normal" kid simply decides one day to be a super hero, but he has no powers, no partners, and no comic-book back story/origin to compel him) was perfect for a 2-hour introduction in 2010, it's simply a re-tread on display here, and a bad one at that.

Chief among the film's failures is saying nothing new.  To be honest, I haven't read the second entry in the comic series, so I don't know how much of the blame to lay at Wadlow's feet for it.  There's what passes for a super-villain origin story (although as a character he's re-heated from the last film), and the cast of heroes is slightly expanded (but none of the new are fleshed out), but nothing of note along the lines of change.

Looking back to 2010, the allure of the first film wasn't in the quality of the narrative, to be sure:  It was the fact you'd never really seen anything like it.  It was at once an homage to the genre and a deconstruction of it. These characters live in a mundane world, and with the simple act of stepping into costume and facing the world as super-heroes, you begin to see a sort of magical twist to the rules of reality.  It was as if what they were doing was so extreme, the universe had to back off a bit. Things had to get comic-book-y.  Situations became more and more twisted, personalities became focused and amplified, lines were drawn, costumes were sewn, chaos ensued. The fun of it wasn't limited to watching the characters grow into some sort of archetype, as in most conventional stories of its ilk: It was in watching the world around them change to fit their weirdness.

In 2, however, with the magic spell cast in the original entering its third year, we must look elsewhere for original concepts. Sadly, Wadlow (and perhaps Millar before him?) wallows in the feel and conceits of the original.  The only marked difference is the frequency of toilet humor, really.

I wouldn't have known where to go with the story, either, but then, I'm not asking for a portion of your ticket price. Yeah, I do think Wadlow gets the spirit of it, which does come through on occasion, and I think he does a competent job pulling performances from the actors, and maybe it's just that they're staying true to the original print material. There are a few competent chase and action sequences (as with the first, anything involving Hit-Girl in an action sequence is well done). But for the most part, what was once shiny and new is now...I'll call it boring. Colorful and somewhat random, but boring overall.  Pointless would be another word to use.

At least wait for the rental.  It's a 4 out of 10 stars for being mildly entertaining on occasion.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews - Elysium

Elysium is the second major studio release for director Neil Blomkamp, perhaps best known for his work on District 9, another gritty sci-fi/social commentary piece. District 9 made waves for (among other things) its seamless visual effects, done on a rather shoestring budget but to incredible visual success.  No surprise, then, that Neil's background is entrenched in the world of 3D visual effects on a budget, having supplied them for such television fare as the CW's Smallville.  With this new effort starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, one would believe that any budgetary concerns are in the past.

Although I wouldn't call it a "follow-up", Elysium does tread a lot of the same thematic elements as District 9, although the set of metaphors in this movie tread much more familiar-looking territory.  The two movies both portray a stark separation between the haves/have-not's, the presence of baseless prejudice in the human collective psyche, and a sort of entrenched nationalism on the part of the elite in our societal structure. In District 9, the prejudices being illustrated were a little more in the abstract, as the object of hatred and mis-understanding was an insectoid alien culture.  Elysium, on the other hand, tells a thinly-veiled story of the US/Mexico border, only "Mexico" in this metaphor is the hopelessly polluted and over-populated planet Earth. The United States is represented by Elysium, an orbiting satellite filled with the mansions of the one per-centers looking down on the planet with the same predilections as Ozzy Ozbourne had for fans beneath his hotel balcony way back when.  Lest you think there might be some less specific metaphors in play, especially given Blomkamp's South African nationality, the movie is set in Los Angeles, and almost the entire supporting cast (at least where the "hapless denizens" are concerned) is Latino.

Matt Damon plays an Earth-bound worker (Max) given a terminal prognosis after a lethal exposure to radiation at his incredibly unsafe and exploitative workplace, and his only hope for a cure lies (of course) in the advanced medical facilities aboard the satellite...which, besides being in space, are zealously guarded by its citizens.  Max must enlist the aid of the 22nd century's equivalent of the coyote, and get his ass to Elysium. Oh, and along the way, fight for equality and bring hope to the masses and all that.

So, yeah, it's really preachy.  But does it work as a movie?  Short answer: Mostly, "Yes."

The Good:  Matt Damon plays a convincing every-man in Max, and the desperation and determination of the character's everyday life as a cog in the machine is convincingly focused and magnified through the lens of the more immediate conflict.  Sharlto Copley(The A-team)'s performance was the standout, however, as his intensely violent and determined portrayal of Kruger, revealed as Max's more direct nemesis, was incredibly well done.  Although Jodie Foster's portrayal of Delacourt hasn't enjoyed much by way of critical acclaim, I thought she did a fine job with the ballsy, ruthless defense minister of Elysium, charged with keeping the riff-raff off the station.  She plays a lion among lambs, and I thought it was a wonderful effort on her part.  Overall, the story is competently delivered, and the pacing excellent:  This writer/director knows how to pressurize before he lets the steam out in the more violent scenes, which I think is lost on a lot of the current crop in Hollywood.  Visually, the movie is very well done, as expected, but there were one or two scenes where the effects became overt.  I liked the camera work overall, especially during fight sequences:  It's not steady-cam-centric, as one might come to expect in a Matt Damon action vehicle.  Rather, it is both experimental and elegant in the way the camera, for example, exactly follows the sweeping arc of a thrown punch, all with the fist at center.  It is is focused and on-point without being clinical, and without losing detail in the action.  In certain scenes, the view switches between standard and helmet-mounted cameras, giving the audience a less omniscient perch that serves to anchor to the character's experience of combat.  The sets are excellent, and the textures used (dust, scabs, tears, decay, or the distinct lack thereof) are consistent visual reminders.

The Bad:   I'm all for metaphor in my sci-fi, and I think one of the best aspects of the genre is illustrating the concerns of mankind and how the future addresses them (or ought to address them). However, the best science fiction, in my view, boils the issues down to their essence, and doesn't need such direct and obvious metaphorical links to current events.  Such overt metaphor cheapens whatever message is being conveyed. The parallels drawn in this movie are simplistic caricatures, and it nearly ruins the narrative when you can practically hear the author's voice throughout:  "SEE how the closed borders inevitably result in human trafficking and exploitation of the huddled masses?  SEE how the blind nationalism results in exploitation and the loss of human compassion across borders?  SEE how the use of drone aircraft results in a disconnect between the soldier and the consequences of combat?  Oh, and Universal Health Care!!!" If you've ever thought to yourself, "You know, George Clooney should teach a class in how to portray the ethics of US foreign policy in a blockbuster movie, I'd sign up right away!", then this is the movie for you. Also, much of the movie's plot depends upon minutiae that doesn't stand up to examination, like the security systems surrounding the government of a space colony being remarkably easy to subvert, and machines capable of DNA coding that can re-build a person atom by atom, but are fooled into dispensing care to non-citizens by a forged brand on the skin.  These little things are beside the point, but then, the enjoyable aspects of the movie are ALL beside the point: Everything slaved to "the point" ends up being about as thought-provoking as the PSA at the end of every GI Joe cartoon.  If you disregard the "message" of the film, you'll end up looking elsewhere for stuff to think about, and it's an easy leap to start dissecting the film for plot holes (which invariably appear).


The Conclusion:  This is a good sci-fi action film, having a skilled director that knows how to construct good drama, and its intentions are in the spirit of the best science fiction. However, it falters where the specific and unabashed metaphor for current US politics is concerned, being altogether transparent and detracting from the film's supposedly future setting.

The Rating:  A solid 8 on a 10 scale as a sci-fi action/drama, but only rates a 3 in terms of social commentary.  Too transparent, too simplistic, too "now" to provoke anything in terms of conversation on the issues at hand.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: 2 Guns

Director Baltasar Kormakur's second major studio release featuring Mark Wahlberg,  2 Guns, opened last Friday and proceeded to secure the number one spot at the box office, albeit for a relatively slow weekend.  Based on the Boom! Studios graphic novels by Steven Grant (which I have not read, yet), the film is the latest in a long list of comics adaptations in recent memory, yet seems to tread territory more familiar to the action films of the 80's than the tights and capes films of the last decade.

When I bought my ticket, I was looking for lite action fare, but with comics personality and panache.  The action movie genre as a whole, in my humble opinion, has been taking itself entirely too seriously lately, and the previews seemed to indicate a lighter treatment of the buddy cop motif, which looked to be something I'd enjoy.

The film concerns the exploits of two secretive "good guys", Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) and Mike Stigman (Mark Wahlberg), each working undercover for a different entity, and each unaware of the other's true disposition.   What starts as a bank robbery caper quickly turns into a sort of ground war between various factions, including a number of corrupt government agencies (5, maybe  6?), drug cartels, and those working multiple angles.  Both characters begin the movie wholly convinced of the way things ought to work, and only by throwing out the rule book, so to speak, can they succeed.  

Let's get straight to it:

The Bad:  Personality the film has, in spades, although I hesitate to say what type:  It's all over the map.  The action is played too straight and certain dramatic moments are too intense to belong in a farce/parody, but the plot is simply too outlandish to belong in either straight-up action drama or even buddy cop territory.  The worst part is the way the film switches personality and tone from scene to scene:  There are about 6 intense gun battles, for example, that are played completely straight by the camera, the editing, and the direction, but these are predicated by grab-bag action movie plot devices that go to outlandish extremes and dialogue that's anything but serious. Seriously, every government agency mentioned in the movie, from the Border Patrol to the US Navy, the ATF, the DEA, the CIA, etc., is involved in drug smuggling, has its own Snidely Whiplash corrupt official, shadow organization and/or black ops hit-squad that initiates broad-daylight gun battles with impunity.   Sometimes, the movie seems to be heading for the dramatic intensity of something like Drive or Dog Day Afternoon, other times it seems to want a more comedic or stylized approach akin to a Troublemaker Studios effort, and yet other times, it feels like a shallow buddy cop flick similar in tone to (insert Eddie Murphy buddy cop movie here).  The trouble is, the style elements are so diluted by the schism that it's hard for the film to succeed in any one of its many aspects.  In this regard, Washington's Trench character is played a little too straight, and has some elements of plot attached that are a bit too dramatic to fit:  There are those moments where you know he's phoning in his typical Washington "seasoned rogue" gig you're likely used to from previous efforts.  He does have his moments, but he's out-shined by his counterpart in just about every scene (more on that below), and he is his most successful playing off Whalberg's superior lead.

The Good:  There are indeed some well-filmed action scenes in the movie, and there is a good amount of fun to be had if you check your mind at the door.  Whalberg seems to know exactly what to do with his character, who goes from doe-eyed believer in the system to "I don't give a shit" rogue during the course of the film. The character arcs are basically the same between the two main draws, in that fundamentally each hero must become their cover, and Whalberg's Stigman is the most apt, delivering one-liners and little personality ticks that get you believing early on that he is polarized along those lines, but could make the leap between wheelhouses easily. He gets the most entertaining of the two main sets of dialogue, and delivers every one-liner and insult to great effect.  My only complaint was that he didn't, or maybe wasn't allowed to, go farther with it.  If it were my film, I'd have written/directed his character as a straight SNL parody of himself, complete with "Do you like Entourage?" fourth-wall-breaking debasement, but that's just me.

The Conclusion:   This film would make a solid rental, good for a weekday night or a slow Saturday.  I don't know that the cinematography or action merits the big-screen treatment, and there's little else here to justify a "go buy a ticket" recommendation.  Perhaps for this last weekend and the next couple, it could scratch that itch for a movie buff that just has to have a movie to go to.

The Rating:  It's a 6 on a 10 scale for theater-viewing, but perhaps an 8 or a 9 as a rental.